Ross Twp. zoning issue has tricky loophole

Department needed less than month after vote if approved.

Ross Twp. has an odd predicament, if voters approve taking over zoning in the November election, the township has about three weeks to establish a zoning department including hiring a zoning administrator.

In response to a petition by residents the trustees have placed a question on the Nov. 8 ballot asking voters if they want the township to take over zoning from the county. Fiscal Officer Julie Joyce-Smith told the Journal-News if the measure is approved they have only a few weeks to have a zoning department in place.

She said they are advertising the zoning administrator position now, a job they don’t know they will even need, “it’s a very strange loophole in the law.”

“We’re already advertising for a possible position which is a really interesting thing to have to do,” she said. “We may or may not have a position, we may or may not offer full-time, we may or may not offer part-time we really don’t know... It’s not like we can say well at the first of the year we’re going to deal with this but we can’t. Once it’s voted we kind of have to move forward pretty quickly.”

Township Administrator Laurie Kile said as soon as the Butler County Board of Elections certifies the election — about three weeks after the vote — they are responsible for the township’s zoning. She said she has interviewed one candidate but they were unqualified.

Joyce-Smith said the township is still ironing out what that department might look like, but if they hire a full-time staffer she is estimating it would cost around $116,000 for salary and benefits for a zoning administrator, legal fees and other costs. She is estimating it might only cost about $68,500 for a part-time person.

In 2020 after 339 residents submitted a petition for the township to take control of its own zoning, the trustees appointed a zoning commission and with the help of a consultant that panel updated the land use plan and drafted the zoning resolution and map.

The ballot language reads, “Shall the zoning plan for the unincorporated area of Ross Township, as adopted by the Board of Township Trustees, be approved?”

In addition to hiring a paid zoning administrator the township also has to find five people — and two alternates — to serve on the board of zoning appeals which is “ an independent appellate board, which hears land use matters arising under the Ross Township Zoning Resolution such as variance and conditional use requests,” according to the position posting.

Trustee Ellen Yordy said they are having trouble finding residents to serve on that volunteer board as well.

“It’s going to be hard to get that in place and I don’t know what we do if we can’t,” Yordy said. “That’s another issue, certain people were all gung ho and wanted this zoning but it’s funny how they don’t want to do anything with it. Well it’s not funny, it’s very aggravating.”

Affording this new department is another issue the trustees must grapple with. Joyce-Smith said the general fund can cover the expense in the short term.

“Our general fund really isn’t in a position to sustain this for a long period time, we can do it for several years, but our general fund is pretty much accounted for,” she said. “What’s coming in is pretty much accounted for and we’re pretty thrifty. So from just a financial point of view we’re going to have to have some big discussions.”

ExploreRoss Twp. voters to decide who controls zoning

Yordy said at this point they will have to ask voters to approve an additional operating levy just for zoning in the next few years. Failing that she said they would have to dissolve their zoning operation and turn control back to the county, but that would also require ballot approval.

Morgan Twp. took over control of its own zoning in the late 1980s and Trustee Darryl Huff was on the first zoning board for the township. The hardest part was getting voters to approve measure, “our residents were about 50/50 opposed to the zoning and in favor of, we’re mostly a rural area and the farm people in Morgan Twp. didn’t really know what to expect out of zoning, they thought there’s be too many restrictions.”

Huff said it has worked out very well for the township residents who now “control their own destiny.”

“There’s a lot of benefit to controlling your own zoning, you have residents that control their own destiny,” Huff said. “I think we did a really good job because from then on people come straight into our office and file for zoning permits rather than going to Hamilton and going in front of the board and things like that. It was a lot more convenient and we went by the code but these are your neighbors doing the judging.”

If the township is unable to hire a zoning administrator by the designated date, Kile said they’ll handle it.

“I guess we’ll have to have someone on staff pinch hit, I feel certain we can utilize the consultant we contracted with for this process,” Kile said. “I feel certain we can contract with her further to help guide us.”

The Journal-News asked Butler County Development Director David Fehr if his department could help out on an interim basis, but he said while they always want to help out the townships, the county commissioners “at least in the past have not been interested in sort of doing a consultant relationship helping townships with zoning.”

He said he suggested the township try to work out an agreement with neighboring Morgan Twp. to share their zoning administrator until they find someone.

Commissioner Don Dixon — who urged Ross officials to take over their own zoning during the recent Burns Farm controversy — said he is please Ross is attempting to control their zoning but is not certain the county could legally get involved once the voters have spoken.

“We always no matter what township or city it is, if we can pitch in and help we will,” Dixon said.

Last December, the commissioners refused to approve the creation of a community authority for development of the 350-acre Burns Farm at the corner of U.S. 27 and Ohio 128. The plan was to develop it with 339 mid-level and estate homes, senior cottages and assisted living,185 rental units and 124 units of “active adult housing.” A small portion, about 25 acres, could hold a hotel and neighborhood retail.

A group of residents protested the project and Yordy said the development remains dormant, “I haven’t heard anything from the developer, we’ve reached out to him a couple times.”


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